Oh f***!

April 26, 2017

Our United Customer Commitment

“We are committed to providing a level of service to our customers that makes us a leader in the airline industry. We understand that to do this we need to have a product we are proud of and employees who like coming to work every day.”

“Our goal is to make every flight a positive experience for our customers. Our United Customer Commitment explains our specific service commitments so that we can continue a high level of performance and improve wherever possible. The commitment explains our policies in a clear, consistent and understandable fashion. We have detailed training programs and system enhancements to support our employees in meeting these commitments, and we measure how well we meet them. Welcome on board United Airlines!”

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From United’s website

For those that have been in a media coma since the beginning of April: On April 9th, a passenger on a United Airlines flight that had been overbooked was beaten and dragged from his seat to make room for transferring United Airlines staff. It’s all over YouTube – just google it.

How did United get from its “customer commitment” to beating up passengers?

In isolation, the United story is just a single story. However, as the internet and instant video sharing permeates society, we keep seeing these incredible situations pop up more and more. From Uber’s boss berating his own driver to Trump bragging about grabbing pussy. Transparency is, in most instances, forcing companies to re-evaluate policies that didn’t used to be controversial.

The question, however, is how is a situation created where antagonising your own customers is actually in the “rule book”? Presumably the company started off with good intentions when it was established in 1926 as Varney Air Lines? The business model, however, evolved over time to where passengers are not the reason United exists, but rather butts in seats that need to be moved with maximum financial efficiency.

If we consider that every decision made along the way, made sense at the time, then it is equally obvious, that the cumulative complexity of all those decisions along with legacy processes and habits evolved into something completely opposite to the intended result.

In fact, the whole business is probably so complex so as to be opaque even to the people running it. While on the surface, the whole business is about moving people from point A to point B, there are internal metrics that have nothing to do with moving people from point A to point B. And it is these metrics, the contradictions built into the system, that create a ripple-effect over time that ends up legitamising dehumanising behaviour toward your own customers.

Complexity is an enemy of good customer service. When the company itself doesn’t understand the consequences of all the processes and actions in the rule book, it is unlikely to offer customers a reason to return other than the minimum transactional value: a cheap service or product.

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Ironically, increasing complexity creates pressures on the organisation to stratify into singular departments that only focus on one or the other area. Logically, this is done to improve efficiency. After all, when things are complicated it makes sense to re-organise into mono-functional departments in order to simplify the task. Unfortunately, this has the side effect of creating silos. These silos end up making the customer experience worse and movement between the silos, for the customer, becomes a nightmare. We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve answered the same questions several times, as we get bounced around departments.

Ronald Reagan famously stated, “tear this wall down” as he visited Berlin and agitated for the fall of communism. Customers all over the world are screaming “tear these silos down” as they face an experience that they don’t want to repeat. Is anyone listening?

There is no silver bullet to solve these issues in a short period of time. However, over the long-term, looking at the customer experience from the customer’s perspective, and taking into account the whole journey from need to satisfaction, rather than just the transactional moments, will help re-align the whole company with what actually creates value for the customer.